In the previous post I offered a very brief survey of some controversies, pointing out that while there have been some true-blue antinomians, the charge is often made by those tilting in a more neonomian direction against faithful, apostolic, evangelical preaching. For example, in spite of the fact that Lutheran and Reformed churches have gone on record against antinomianism in no uncertain terms, that has not kept them from being accused of holding at least implicitly to antinomian tenets.
The Lutheran Confession
In his Small Catechism, Luther begins with the Ten Commandments, concluding, “God threatens to punish all that transgress these commandments. Therefore we should dread His wrath and not act contrary to these commandments. But He promises grace and every blessing to all that keep these commandments. Therefore we should also love and trust in Him, and gladly do [zealously and diligently order our whole life] according to His commandments.”
Settling the controversies in its own circles, the Lutherans confess in the fourth article of the Formula of Concord (1577), “We reject and condemn as offensive and detrimental to Christian discipline the bare expression, when it is said: Good works are injurious to salvation.”
For especially in these last times it is no less needful to admonish men to Christian discipline [to the way of living aright and godly] and good works, and remind them how necessary it is that they exercise themselves in good works as a declaration of their faith and gratitude to God, than that the works be not mingled in the article of justification; because men may be damned by an Epicurean delusion concerning faith, as well as by papistic and Pharisaic confidence in their own works and merits (IV.2).
After affirming the civil and elenctic uses of the law (viz., to curb public vice and to drive sinners to Christ), the sixth article defends the “third use”: “..that after they are regenerate and [much of] the flesh notwithstanding cleaves to them, they might on this account have a fixed rule according to which they are to regulate and direct their whole life…” (VI.1).
The following conclusions are worth quoting at length:
We believe, teach, and confess that, although men truly believing [in Christ] and truly converted to God have been freed and exempted from the curse and coercion of the Law, they nevertheless are not on this account without Law, but have been redeemed by the Son of God in order that they should exercise themselves in it day and night [that they should meditate upon God’s Law day and night, and constantly exercise themselves in its observance, Ps. 1:2 ], Ps. 119. For even our first parents before the Fall did not live without Law, who had the Law of God written also into their hearts, because they were created in the image of God, Gen. 1:26f.; 2:16ff; 3:3. We believe, teach, and confess that the preaching of the Law is to be urged with diligence, not only upon the unbelieving and impenitent, but also upon true believers, who are truly converted, regenerate, and justified by faith (VI.2-3).
For although they are regenerate and renewed in the spirit of their mind, yet in the present life this regeneration and renewal is not complete, but only begun, and believers are, by the spirit of their mind, in a constant struggle against the flesh, that is, against the corrupt nature and disposition which cleaves to us unto death. On account of this old Adam, which still inheres in the understanding, the will, and all the powers of man, it is needful that the Law of the Lord always shine before them, in order that they may not from human devotion institute wanton and self-elected cults [that they may frame nothing in a matter of religion from the desire of private devotion, and may not choose divine services not instituted by God’s Word]; likewise, that the old Adam also may not employ his own will, but may be subdued against his will, not only by the admonition and threatening of the Law, but also by punishments and blows, so that he may follow and surrender himself captive to the Spirit, 1 Cor. 9:27; Rom. 6:12, Gal. 6:14; Ps. 119:1ff ; Heb. 13:21 (Heb. 12:1) (VI.4).
The regenerate bear the fruit of the Spirit not as “works of the Law” in the sense of condemnation and justification, but “spontaneously and freely”; “for in this manner the children of God live in the Law and walk according to the Law of God, which [mode of living] St. Paul in his epistles calls the Law of Christ and the Law of the mind, Rom. 7:25; 8:7; Rom. 8:2; Gal. 6:2” (VI.5-6).
Thus the Law is and remains both to the penitent and impenitent, both to regenerate and unregenerate men, one [and the same] Law, namely, the immutable will of God; and the difference, so far as concerns obedience, is alone in man, inasmuch as one who is not yet regenerate does for the Law out of constraint and unwillingly what it requires of him (as also the regenerate do according to the flesh); but the believer, so far as he is regenerate, does without constraint and with a willing spirit that which no threatenings [however severe] of the Law could ever extort from him (VI.7).
Therefore, the Formula rejects as an “error injurious to, and conflicting with, Christian discipline and true godliness” the view that this law is “not to be urged upon Christians and true believers, but only upon unbelievers, non-Christians, and the impenitent” (VI.8).
The Reformed Confession
In the earlier Reformed confessions, the primary goal is to clear the evangelical doctrine of justification from the Roman Catholic (and Anabaptist) charge that it rejects any place for good works, rather than any direct threat of antinomianism within the ranks.
The Belgic Confession (1561) affirms that regeneration by the Spirit through the gospel “creates a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin. . Therefore it is so far from being true that this justifying faith makes men remiss in a pious and holy life, that on the contrary, without it they would never do anything out of love to God, but only out of self-love or fear of damnation. Therefore, it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man.” These good works “are of no account towards our justification, for it is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works; otherwise they could not be good works.” Although “God rewards good works, it is through His grace that He crowns His gifts” and “we do not found our salvation upon them; for we can do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable…Thus, then, we would always be in doubt, tossed to and fro without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be continually vexed if they relied not on the merits of the suffering and death of our Savior” (Art. 24).
The Heidelberg Catechism begins its “Gratitude” section by asking why we should still do good works if we are justified by grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. We do so “because Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself, so that in all our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all he has done for us, and so that he may be praised through us. And we do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ” (Q. 86). Conversion involves repentance as well as faith: dying to the old self and living to Christ (Q. 87-90). What then defines a “good work”? “Only that which arises out of true faith, conforms to God’s law, and is done for his glory; and not that which is based on what we think is right or on established human tradition” (Q. 91). This sets the stage for Catechism’s treatment of the the Ten Commandments (Q. 92-113). “In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some, of God’s commandments” (Q. 114). The law much still be preached in the church for two reasons: “First, so that the longer we live the more we may come to know our sinfulness and the more eagerly look to Christ for forgiveness of sins and righteousness. Second, so that, while praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, we may never stop striving to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection” (Q. 115). There are also many relevant statements in the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1619).
The same view is found in articles 15-18 of the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles. However, the debates of subsequent decades brought refinement to the Reformed confession even as they did for Lutherans.
In the Westminster Confession (1647) we find the most mature reflection of Reformed churches on these questions. After a remarkably clear statement of justification, taking into account a variety of subtle deviations, the Confession treats sanctification and faith, repentance, and good works in chapters 13-16. Again the Pauline emphasis on sanctification arising necessarily from election, effectual calling, justification and adoption is evident.
Christ, “by his Word and Spirit,” destroys the dominion of sin, weakening and mortifying its desires while quickening and strengthening the new creature in “the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (13.1). Though “imperfect in this life,” there arises “a continual and irreconcilable war, the flesh lusting against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh.” Nevertheless, by God’s grace the saints will prevail (13.2-3). The Spirit brings us to repentance through the law and the gospel (15.1-2). We do not rest on repentance “as any satisfaction for sin,” but it evangelical repentance is always present with true faith as the gift of God (15.3).
Good works are those done according to God’s law, not human authority, zeal or pious intention (16.1). They are “the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith…” (16.2). Yet believers’ good works are by grace in Christ, through his Word and Spirit, “not at all of themselves” (16.3). “We cannot by our best works merit pardon or sin, or eternal life at the hand of God…,” since even the best works of believers are still “defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment. Notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works are also accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblamable and unreprovable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections” (16.5-7).
Chapter 19, “Of the Law of God,” distinguishes clearly between the way the law functions in a covenant of works (promising life for obedience and threatening death for disobedience) and in the covenant of grace . “Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet it is of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life informing them of the will of God, and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollution of their nature, hearts, and lives; so as, examining themselves thereby, they may come to further conviction of, humiliation for, and hatred against sin, together with a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and the perfection of his obedience” (19.6). Expanding on the law / gospel distinction that grounds it, the federal scheme (covenant of works / covenant of grace) is crucial for avoiding legalism as well as antinomianism.
Drawing on Confessional Wisdom for Contemporary Debates
I have quoted Lutheran and Reformed confessions at length on this question at least in part because I sense that in some circles today there is a dangerous tendency to rally around persons, forming tribes around particular flags. Unchecked, this leads—as church history teaches us—to slander and schism.
There are several dangers to point out regarding this temptation to follow persons rather than to confess the faith together with saints across various times and places. There are personal idiosyncrasies attached to individuals, no matter how great their insight into God’s Word. With a clear conscience Paul could tell the Ephesian elders that he had fulfilled his office, declaring to them “the whole counsel of God” (Ac 20:27). This is our goal, too. Paul’s message came directly from the ascended Christ, and yet his letters reflect the particular controversies, strengths, and weaknesses of the churches he served. His personality and emphases differed at times from those of other apostles, even Peter and James—sometimes to the point of sharp confrontations. Nevertheless, the Spirit brought a sweet unity to the apostolic church as it gathered in a representative synod of “apostles and elders.” In solemn assembly in Jerusalem, the whole church received its marching orders for the proper view and treatment of Gentile believers.
How much more, after the death of the apostles, is our Lord’s wisdom evident in the representative assemblies of his body. It’s interesting that at the Council of Jerusalem not even Peter was given precedence over the body. Not even Athanasius’ writings were made binding at Nicea. Lutherans are not bound to Luther’s corpus and Reformed churches do not even subscribe anything written by Calvin. Jonathan Edwards did not sit at the Westminster Assembly. We are not obliged today to these confessions because of great persons, but because of great summaries of God’s Word.
It can be as difficult for their followers as for prominent preachers and theologians themselves to submit to the consensus of a whole body rather than to promote their own distinctive teachings, emphases, and corrections. Those who were raised in more legalistic and Arminian backgrounds may be prone to confuse every call to obedience as a threat to newly discovered doctrines of grace. The zeal of those who are converted from a life of debauchery or perhaps from a liberal denomination may boil over into legalistic fervor. As in the Jerusalem Council, representatives came to Nicea, Chalcedon, Torgau, Dort, and Westminster with idiosyncrasies. Yet they had to make their case, participate in restrained debate, and talk to each other in a deliberative assembly rather than about each other on blogs and in conversations with their circle of followers. Muting personal idiosyncrasies in favor of a consensus on the teaching of God’s Word, these assemblies give us an enduring testimony for our own time. Nothing has changed with respect to how sinners are justified and sanctified. There has been no alteration of God’s covenantal law or gospel.
On one hand there is reason for thanksgiving today. Many believers, especially younger ones, are embracing the doctrines of grace. Parachurch associations have provided a remarkable opportunity to extend this message and to provide mutual support to those in different denominations, or no denomination at all.
On the other hand, Christ founded a church, not an association or a website. He gave authority to churches, subordinate to his Word, to guard the apostolic deposit entrusted to them. This ministerial authority is lodged in the offices of pastor and elder, in local and broader assemblies. And yet, even in churches officially committed to this form of mutual fellowship and admonition, one discerns a growing tendency to gather into parties rather than presbyteries. Can we imagine Paul blogging about Peter rather than confronting him face to face? Are controversies to be decided by pastors and elders or by posts and emails?
Social media today create grassroots, democratic movements overnight, but unless we submit to the New Testament structures of mutual edification, these exciting wonders will be monsoons that pass as quickly as they came, leaving devastation in their wake. We have to reflect on the assets and liabilities of these new forms of mass communication, using them to the glory of God in their appropriate domain while submitting ourselves to the often humbling, slow, deliberative, and consensual processes of church courts.
If the growing charges and counter-charges of antinomianism and legalism continue to mount in our own circles, may God give us good and godly sense to recover the wisdom of our confessions as faithful summaries of biblical faith and practice. And may the Spirit direct us to the fraternal fellowship of the church’s representative assemblies for mutual encouragement and correction.